Where Have All the Girls Gone?

It's true: Western money and advice really did help fuel the explosion of sex selection in Asia.

How did more than 160 million women go missing from Asia? The simple answer is sex selection -- typically, an ultrasound scan followed by an abortion if the fetus turns out to be female -- but beyond that, the reasons for a gap half the size of the U.S. population are not widely understood. And when I started researching a book on the topic, I didn't understand them myself.

I thought I would focus on how gender discrimination has persisted as countries develop. The reasons couples gave for wanting boys varies: Sons stayed in the family and took care of their parents in old age, or they performed ancestor and funeral rites important in some cultures. Or it was that daughters were a burden, made expensive by skyrocketing dowries.

But that didn't account for why sex selection was spreading across cultural and religious lines. Once found only in East and South Asia, imbalanced sex ratios at birth have recently reached countries as varied as Vietnam, Albania, and Azerbaijan. The problem has fanned out across these countries, moreover, at a time when women are driving many developing economies. In India, where women have achieved political firsts still not reached in the United States, sex selection has become so intense that by 2020 an estimated 15 to 20 percent of men in northwest India will lack female counterparts. I could only explain that epidemic as the cruel sum of technological advances and lingering sexism. I did not think the story of sex selection's spread would lead, in part, to the United States.

Then I looked into it, and discovered that what I thought were right-wing conspiracy theories about the nexus of Western feminism and population control actually had some, if very distant and entirely historical, basis in truth. As it turns out, Western advisors and researchers, and Western money, were among the forces that contributed to a serious reduction in the number of women and girls in the developing world. And today feminist and reproductive-rights groups are still reeling from that legacy.

The story begins in the mid-20th century, when several factors converged to make Western demographers worried about global population growth. Thanks to advances in public health, people were living longer than ever before. Projections released by the U.N. Population Division in 1951 suggested what the sum of all those extra years of life could be: Rapid population growth was on the horizon, particularly in the developing world. As pundits forecast a global "population explosion," anxiety mounted in policy circles, and the population control movement that coalesced brought together everyone from environmentalists to McCarthyites. Viewed through a 1960s Beltway lens, mounting numbers of people meant higher rates of poverty, which in turn made countries more vulnerable to communism.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and the Rockefeller Foundation were among the organizations that poured money into stanching the birth rate abroad, while the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the Population Council helped coordinate efforts on the ground. As these organizations backed research into barriers to couples accepting contraception, one of the obstacles quickly identified was that in most parts of the world, but particularly in fast-growing Asia, people continued to have children until they got a boy. As demographer S.N. Agarwala explained in a paper on India he presented at a 1963 IPPF conference in Singapore: "[S]ome religious rites, especially those connected with the death of the parents, can be performed only by the male child.... [T]hose who have only daughters try their best to have at least one male child." Even in the United States, surveys suggested a preference for sons.

That raised the question: What if couples could be guaranteed a son from the start? Elsewhere, scientists were working to perfect fetal sex determination tests for women carrying sex-linked disorders like hemophilia, which only manifests itself in males. (The first sex-selective abortions, performed in 1955 by Danish doctors in Copenhagen, were actually done on women carrying male fetuses.) But the technology was still incipient and required a late-term abortion. Proponents of population control began talking about nudging sex selection along. In 1967, for example, when Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Alan Guttmacher received a proposal from an Indian scientist interested in finding a way to "control SEX in human reproduction," he scrawled a note across the top in hasty red pencil, asking the organization's medical director to consider whether the research was in fact "worth encouraging."

Planned Parenthood didn't fund the research in the end, but on the technicality that the U.S. government had recently cut funding for fellowships to foreigners. Six months later Steven Polgar, the organization's head of research, went public with the notion that sex selection was an effective population control method. Taking the podium before an audience of scholars and policymakers at a conference sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), Polgar "urged," according to the meeting's minutes, "that sociologists stimulate biologists to find a method of sex determination, since some parents have additional children in order to get one of specified sex."

At first the language was gender-neutral. But before long the descriptions grew more blunt, and some proponents talked frankly about selecting for sons. In the years that followed, Population Council President Bernard Berelson endorsed sex selection in the pages of Science, while Paul Ehrlich advocated giving couples the sons they desired in his blockbuster The Population Bomb. "[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males," he wrote, "then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased." In many countries, he wrote, "couples with only female children 'keep trying' in hope of a son." A wide range of population control strategies were on the table at the time, but by the end of the decade, when the NICHD held another workshop on reducing birth rates, sex selection had emerged as an approach that participants deemed "particularly desirable."

Other spokesmen -- for they were mostly men -- included Arno G. Motulsky, a geneticist at the University of Washington-Seattle, William D. McElroy, then head of the biology department at Johns Hopkins University, and British microbiologist John Postgate. Postgate was particularly resolute. He extolled sex selection in an article for the New Scientist, explaining that population growth was so great a threat that the drawbacks of a skewed sex ratio would have to be tolerated, grim as they were. "A form of purdah" might be necessary, he predicted, while "Women's right to work, even to travel alone freely, would probably be forgotten transiently." A handful of women got on board as well. In 1978, former ambassador and former U.S. Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce wrote an article for the Washington Star in which she clamored for the development of a "manchild pill" -- a drug a woman could take before sex to ensure any children that resulted would be male.

Before long, sex selection emerged as a favored solution. In the context of '60s and '70s population politics, it had the appeal of being a voluntary strategy that played to individual behavior. In his paper for Science, Berelson ranked sex selection's ethical value as "high." Postgate pointed out, "Countless millions of people would leap at the opportunity to breed male." And other strategies being tried in Asia at the time entailed coercion, not choice.

In South Korea, Western money enabled the creation of a fleet of mobile clinics -- reconditioned U.S. Army ambulances donated by USAID and staffed by poorly trained workers and volunteers. Fieldworkers employed by the health ministry's Bureau of Public Health were paid based on how many people they brought in for sterilizations and intrauterine device insertions, and some allege Korea's mobile clinics later became the site of abortions as well. By the 1970s, recalls gynecologist Cho Young-youl, who was a medical student at the time, "there were agents going around the countryside to small towns and bringing women into the [mobile] clinics. That counted toward their pay. They brought the women regardless of whether they were pregnant." Non-pregnant women were sterilized. A pregnant woman met a worse fate, Cho says: "The agent would have her abort and then undergo tubal ligation." As Korea's abortion rate skyrocketed, Sung-bong Hong and Christopher Tietze detailed its rise in the Population Council journal Studies in Family Planning. By 1977, they determined, doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth -- the highest documented abortion rate in human history. Were it not for this history, Korean sociologist Heeran Chun recently told me, "I don't think sex-selective abortion would have become so popular."

In India, meanwhile, advisors from the World Bank and other organizations pressured the government into adopting a paradigm, as public-health activist Sabu George put it to me, "where the entire problem was population." The Rockefeller Foundation granted $1.5 million to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the country's top medical school, and the Ford Foundation chipped in $63,563 for "research into reproductive biology." And sometime in the mid-1960s, Population Council medical director Sheldon Segal showed the institute's doctors how to test human cells for the sex chromatins that indicated a person was female -- a method that was the precursor to fetal sex determination.

Soon after, the technology matured, and second-trimester fetal sex determination became possible using amniocentesis. In 1975, AIIMS doctors inaugurated sex-selective abortion trials at a government hospital, offering amniocentesis to poor women free of charge and then helping them, should they so choose, to abort on the basis of sex. An estimated 1,000 women carrying female fetuses underwent abortions. The doctors touted the study as a population control experiment, and sex-selective abortion spread throughout India. In his autobiography, Segal professed to being shocked to learn that doctors at AIIMS were using a variation on his instructions to perform sex-selective abortions. But he neglected to mention that shortly after his stay in India he stood before an audience at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and described sex selection as a method of population control. (The minutes from the meeting describe "sex determination at conception" -- now finally available today through advances in assisted reproductive technology -- but in-utero sex determination was the form of sex selection furthest along at that point.)

Sex selection hit China the same year the AIIMS experiments began. The country accepted Western aid belatedly, in 1979. But after years of being kept out of the Middle Kingdom, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and IPPF jumped at the opportunity to play a role in the world's most populous country, with UNFPA chipping in $50 million for computers, training, and publicity on the eve of the one-child policy's unveiling. Publicly, officers at both UNFPA and IPPF claimed China's new policy relied on the Chinese people's exceptional knack for communalism. But, according to Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly's account of the population control movement, Fatal Misconception, in January 1980 IPPF information officer Penny Kane privately fretted about local officials' evident interest in meeting the new birth quotas through forced abortions. Accounts of those eventually leaked out, as did reports of sex-selective abortions. In 1982, Associated Press correspondent Victoria Graham warned that those augured a spreading trend. "These are not isolated cases," she wrote, adding: "Demographers are warning that if the balance between the sexes is altered by abortion and infanticide, it could have dire consequences."

Today, some of those dire consequences have become alarmingly apparent. Part of that is the extent to which organizations like UNFPA have found themselves unable to perform legitimate services in the developing world because of their historic connection to population control. For it was news of sex-selective and forced abortions that helped fuel a budding anti-abortion movement in the United States. Protesters showed up at the 1984 World Population Conference in Mexico City, wielding evidence of abuses in China. The next year, President Ronald Reagan unveiled what would become known as the "global gag rule," cutting off $46 million in funds to UNFPA -- money that might have gone toward maternal and child health as well as population control. The struggle to fund reproductive health continued over the next two decades, with subsequent U.S. presidents withdrawing or reinstating the gag rule along partisan lines.

Nowadays, of course, UNFPA and Planned Parenthood are led by a new wave of feminist bureaucrats who are keen on ensuring reproductive rights, and they no longer finance global population control. Thanks to a thriving anti-abortion movement, Planned Parenthood can barely make contraceptives and safe abortion available to the American women who actually want them. But contentious American politics has these and other groups on the left stuck in what Joseph Chamie, former head of the U.N. Population Division, calls "the abortion bind." The United Nations issued an interagency statement condemning sex selection and outlining recommendations for action last week, and UNFPA was among the agencies that helped draft it. The organization has also funded research on sex selection and sex ratio imbalance at the local level. But its legacy in the developing world continues to haunt its leaders, to the detriment of women worldwide. Lingering anxiety over taking on issues involving abortion, activists and demographers have told me, now has UNFPA reluctant to address sex selection head-on at the international level -- a reluctance that has left the organization's enemies to twist the issue to fit their own agenda. (Anti-abortion groups and pundits have proven all too eager to to take on the issue, though they seem far more interested in driving home restrictions on abortion than they do in increasing the number of women in the world and protecting the rights of women at risk.)

Meanwhile, as American politicians argue over whether to cut Planned Parenthood's U.S. funding and the Christian right drives through bans on sex-selective abortion at the state level, the effects of three decades of sex selection elsewhere in the world are becoming alarmingly apparent. In China, India, Korea, and Taiwan, the first generation shaped by sex selection has grown up, and men are scrambling to find women, yielding the ugly sideblows of increased sex trafficking and bride buying. In a Chinese boomtown, I watched soap operas with a slight, defeated woman from the poor mountains of the west who had been brought east by a trafficker and sold into marriage. (Her favorite show: Women Don't Cry.) In the Mekong Delta, I visited an island commune where local women are hawked by their parents for a few thousand dollars to "surplus" Taiwanese men. While the purdah forecasted by John Postgate has not yet come to pass, feminists in Asia worry that as women become scarce, they will be pressured into taking on domestic roles and becoming housewives and mothers rather than scientists and entrepreneurs.

But what happens to women is only part of the story. Demographically speaking, women matter less and less. By 2013, an estimated one in 10 men in China will lack a female counterpart. By the late 2020s, that figure could jump to one in five. There are many possible scenarios for how these men will cope without women -- and not all, of course, want women -- but several of them involve rising rates of unrest. Already Columbia University economist Lena Edlund and colleagues at Chinese University of Hong Kong have found a link between a large share of males in the young adult population and an increase in crime in China. Doomsday analysts need look no further than America's history: Murder rates soared in the male-dominated Wild West.

Four decades ago, Western advocacy of sex selection yielded tragic results. But if we continue to ignore that legacy and remain paralyzed by heated U.S. abortion politics, we're compounding that mistake. Indian public health activist George, indeed, says waiting to act is no longer an option: If the world does "not see ten years ahead to where we're headed, we're lost."

Update: Since this article was posted, UNFPA has added a prominent page on sex selection to its website.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Leaving Afghanistan

Seven Afghanistan experts review the president's plans for ending the war.

Real reconciliation in Afghanistan

The announcement of the troop drawdown by President Obama last night will not change the military balance on the ground in the short term, because the drawdown will start slowly. More problematic is the signal it sends to Afghans -- and I mean those outside positions of power who are afraid of the consequences when the drawdown ends, when international attention and development assistance to Afghanistan will dwindle. This announcement, they fear, runs parallel to a possible power-sharing deal with the Taliban that may emerge during this period. For them, today was the beginning of the end of the world's support for Afghanistan, for the third time after 1989 (the Soviet withdrawal) and the 1990s factional wars.

Despite all the claims of progress put out by NATO, the U.S. troop surge has not damaged the insurgency beyond repair, and has not shifted the strategic balance away from the Taliban. The Taliban's network structure is elastic; although many mid-ranking Taliban have been killed during the surge, they were quickly replaced -- often, it appears, by younger and more radical newcomers who are likely less inclined to talk. In cases of claimed success in clearing various districts, whether in Kandahar, Helmand or Kunduz, the fighters just went to the next district or laid-low in Pakistan for a while.

And despite claims that there was no Taliban spring offensive, the Taliban have killed four provincial and even region-level police commanders as well as one provincial governor, while two other governors narrowly escaped death. For the first time, the Taliban managed to injure a NATO general. And these are just the prominent victims.

Equally important, if not more so, are the political results of the surge. Instead of forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table, the coalition actually closed the door with the start of the surge, just when there was an internal Taliban debate about the wisdom and morality of suicide bombing as carried out by Mullah Dadullah, and Taliban voices began expressing concern about the bloodletting in the country. The surge shut up those dissenting voices. A chance was squandered. It will be more difficult now to reopen these doors, although some channels seem to be open again. But make no mistake: Channels and contacts are not "talks" and no "negotiations" yet. The mistrust is mutual: The U.S. and many Afghans do not believe that the Taliban want peace, and the Taliban did not perceive the surge as a peace offer.

If the drawdown is coupled with further confidence building measures and the inclusion of important sectors of the Afghan society beyond the Kabul government in shaping an approach to "reconciliation" that is not seen as surrendering rights and freedoms, moral and political high-ground might be recaptured. This would be much more important than clearing a few dusty districts.

Thomas Ruttig is a Co-Director and Senior Analyst of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think-tank. He speaks Pashto and Dari.

Unanswered questions in Obama's Afghanistan policy 

President Obama has set the right strategic direction for U.S. policy in Afghanistan going forward, officially beginning a transfer to Afghan control of security and a realignment in U.S. strategy. While the pace of withdrawal could have been more significant than the declared 10,000 troops this year, with 23,000 to follow by September 2012, it clearly signaled the initial trajectory of a military drawdown. The President also strongly highlighted aspects of the political, diplomatic and economic strategy that American efforts in Afghanistan must be oriented around moving forward. This includes a political settlement to the conflict, a reduction of Afghan dependency on international aid, and reducing extremism in Pakistan. 

Despite these rhetorical acknowledgements, much of the detail available in the president's speech was focused on troop numbers and military schedules, and many questions remain unanswered. For all the administration's claims of progress to date, the groundwork for these other priorities is still only in the early stages, and a shift in strategy is required to make that happen.

For too long, the international military effort in Afghanistan, which has received the overwhelming bulk of the resources and attention from U.S. policymakers, has superseded these key lines of efforts. More worryingly, the degree to which military operations will be aligned with the current stated objective of a political settlement to the conflict remains unclear even after the president's speech -- although some administration officials indicate that a reorientation in operational priorities will now take place. The administration has interpreted the raids and targeted operations that have created a high rate of deaths or captures of mid-level Taliban commanders as a successful tool for pressuring the insurgents to the negotiating table. But if this process is not more clearly linked to the political track to allow those commanders who might want to join a peace process the time and space to show their followers that negotiations offer better prospects and a respite from ISAF attacks, it is not clear that we will have many reliable interlocutors with whom to negotiate. 

Further lacking at this point are the details of the political reforms necessary to make such a political settlement possible, and more information on how the U.S. plans to use its levers of influence -- most critically, an eventual strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and our considerable support to the Karzai government -- to push for action. While the administration is right to affirm the need for a lead Afghan role in this process, the current Afghan government remains an exclusive and highly centralized system with few incentives to offer those on the outside short of presidential patronage. In fact, the parliament -- the one body that has served as a potential domestic check on the executive and a means of bringing opposition voices into government -- is under attack as a Karzai-appointed special electoral court announced today that nearly a quarter of the winners of last fall's highly contested election were invalid, raising the prospects of a constitutional crisis as parliament and the executive dispute the court's authority to alter the election results.

President Obama has set a direction for U.S. policy. The departments and agencies of the U.S. government must now work together to back up his remarks with policies and plans that can make political settlement and civilian transition in Afghanistan a reality.

Caroline Wadhams is Senior Fellow and Colin Cookman is a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress. 

America still doesn't know what it wants to get done in Afghanistan

It seems that the constituency for sort of starting to kind of end the longest war in America's history is pretty small, based on the initial reactions in America to President Obama's speech on Afghanistan.

Inside the Beltway, the initial responses were all over the map. Republicans are sharply divided -- some warned against mission creep and costly nation building, while others argued that America needs to stay the course and "win" in Afghanistan without defining what a "win" actually is. This confused reaction from Republicans is part of a broader dynamic I have written about before -- today's Republican Party is more divided on national security issues than it has been in decades and does not know what it stands for on foreign policy. 

Democrats mostly expressed concerns about the financial costs of the operation, while others raised concerns about the size of the troop withdrawal not being enough. Despite these misgivings from both sides of the aisle, don't expect some sort of coherent political coalition to come together anytime soon to challenge the Obama administration's approach, for two reasons. First, the center of gravity in America's political debate is on domestic policy issues, not foreign policy. Unless some political movement connects the anxieties about the economy and jobs at home with what's going on with the administration's Afghanistan policy, then the war debate will remain mostly an elite one without the political backing from the public to achieve serious policy changes. Second, in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama has strong credibility and leverage with the American public on dealing with terrorism -- just before the speech, fully 63 percent of Americans approved of how Obama is handling terrorism.

Beyond the political reception, as a matter of policy substance, President Obama's speech took some steps in the right direction by signaling a drawdown of troops and flagging several important issues. But the biggest weakness of the speech was that it did not outline a clear way forward on many of the key policy questions connected with those issues -- including five key questions I raised before the speech in this article. For example, the passages about reconciliation in Afghanistan and the way forward in Pakistan sounded more like placeholders acknowledging their importance -- nor were these core issues woven together and integrated in what could be called a coherent strategy. This perhaps expects too much from a prime time speech aimed at the American public, but it augers continued challenges ahead in making the case for why the continued investment in Afghanistan is worth it.

Nearly ten years into the war, the missing ingredient from last night's speech was a clear definition of success in Afghanistan a longstanding problem for U.S. policy in the country. A decade in, the United States lacks a clear answer to the question: "How do we know when the job is done?" We are still in "we'll know it when we see it" territory.

In addition, the speech did not fundamentally resolve a central confusion at the heart of the Obama administration's policy objective defined previously as "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda." The Obama administration has said that there are few al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, arguing instead that most of the problem is across the border in Pakistan. In briefings and discussions before the speech, a number of administration officials noted that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have not posed a threat from Afghan territory in years. Some also made the case that keeping U.S. boots on the ground in some places only prolongs the cycle of radicalization. In the wake of bin Laden's death -- the only leader al-Qaeda has ever known, as President Obama pointedly noted last night -- the American public may understandably remain puzzled about why our country continues to spend billions of dollars a month in Afghanistan when we have serious economic problems at home, and face challenges scraping assistance packages together for other strategically vital countries like Egypt. 

President Obama went into his speech last night seeking to strike the right balance between challenges at home and abroad, and between competing visions for the future of Afghanistan policy among his advisors. But the unanswered questions that remain about his strategy, and the lack of a clear definition of the end state America is working towards in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, remain fundamental policy problems. Without that clarity of goals, the policy debate in Washington will remain impressionistic, and clashes of favorite policy hobby horses falling under general labels like "counterinsurgency," "nation building," or "counterterrorism," or catch phrases like "let's go lighter but longer," which only serve to distract from actually defining what America needs to achieve to say it is done.  Ten years into the Afghanistan war, the Lewis Carroll quote -- "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there," still applies. And that remains the biggest danger for U.S. policy in Afghanistan today.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Afghanistan still needs a long-term commitment

The President has taken a safe approach in his speech last night on Afghanistan, in terms of domestic politics. He cannot easily be accused of playing fast and loose with national security, given that he will likely have more troops in Afghanistan at the end of his first term as there were at the beginning (though analyzing troop numbers can be misleading, based on the number of contractors deployed and the nature of troops that are withdrawn). At the same time the numbers -- 10,000 leaving this year and 23,000 next -- sound sizeable enough to placate at least some of those who are tired of the expense and unpleasantness of the Afghan war.

I wish he had gone further. Whatever happens on the field of battle, what will win or lose the fight for stability in Afghanistan is the mass political psychology of the Afghan people. There is evidence that the sheer scale of the Coalition presence in Afghanistan, and the way that it operates, has sapped the Afghan commitment to the struggle against the Taliban. Most obviously, when the Afghan president himself complains that the Americans are occupiers, it is not easy to argue that Coalition forces are there at his request, fighting a fight led by him. There could hardly be a clearer sign that the time has come to trust the Afghans to defend themselves, and reduce the foreign troop presence more significantly.  

On the other hand, the timing of the announcement was unfortunate. It came just a few days after President Karzai revealed that the U.S. was having talks with the Taliban.  Defense Secretary Roberts Gates, and now the President in his speech, have confirmed that fact. The impression that may result from this series of confirmations, especially among Afghans, is that the U.S. wants to cut a deal in order to withdraw.

It would in my view have been better if the announcement of troop withdrawals could have been coupled with a longer-term commitment to the future of Afghanistan. A promise that even just 10,000 troops would stay for thirty years -- unobtrusively, in bases, subject to the agreement of the Afghan government and operating only with its permission, providing air power, training and weaponry for Afghan government forces -- would be worth more than having 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, fighting in its villages and farms.

This is all easy to say, of course. Militarily, Afghan forces almost certainly need more time to be ready for a large-scale U.S. withdrawal -- a lot more time. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) estimates that no single Afghan unit can operate without foreign assistance, although when I was in Kabul last month, some Afghans pointed out that no unit will want to lose its resource-rich foreign mentors by proving that it doesn't need them.

The question here though is political, not military. It is a question of depriving the Taliban of their most powerful weapon, which is the claim that they are defending Afghanistan and their enemies are non-Muslim foreigners. A swift withdrawal of Coalition forces from the front line would be a very painful test for the Afghan military, though they would be free to choose their battles. But ultimately, it would be a very healthy thing for Afghan politics, and Afghan society. 

Gerard Russell is a research fellow on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Harvard Kennedy School and lived in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

Obama's dangerous message

"We always suspected you would abandon us again. Now your president has said it," the deeply lined leader of a key Mangal subtribe scolded me across a small wooden table set with a bowl of Afghan raisins and nuts. To his left, dozens of other Afghans nodded in agreement. We were sitting in the small office of a women's center on the outskirts of Khost city that was apparently funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and abandoned years ago.

I had been working closely with him for most of the year to garner his support along with his 500 arbakai, or tribal militia, during my most recent tour in Afghanistan. This meeting was supposed to be the final step toward winning over this historically pro-government subtribe.

He and his tribal council were now withdrawing their support completely. It was only week after U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 speech at West Point, where he announced the surge of U.S. forces but undercut the policy with the simultaneous announcement that he would begin their withdrawal by July 2011.

"We appreciate all that you have done for us -- wells, roads, schools," the elder continued. "But until you are prepared to commit your children to stand side by side with our children, we cannot work with you."

"The Haqqanis and their Arab friends will build their training camps on our graves when you leave us," he concluded before walking away.

The president's speech on Wednesday, June 22, outlining his strategy to begin the withdrawal of U.S. forces is evidence that American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more about U.S. domestic pressures than it is about making any sort of long-term commitment to stabilize the region so that terrorist sanctuaries can no longer be used to attack the West.

The debate within the administration and among Washington's pundits over numbers of troops and timelines misses the point. According to former colleagues still at senior levels of the military commands and at the Pentagon, the differences between the most extreme options offered to the president amounted to only a few thousand troops and several months on the timeline.

The larger strategic issue is the broader signal Obama has sent to U.S. allies and the region: America is leaving. This signal, which was received loud and clear by those Afghan elders in 2009 and reinforced Wednesday night, presents four fundamental problems.

First, the entire region has begun to maneuver for a post-American Afghanistan and mostly in ways that run counter to U.S. interests. What this administration doesn't fully realize is that the Afghans, their government, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iranians, and the rest of South and Central Asia aren't listening to the policy nuances of Wednesday's announcement. All they hear is U.S. withdrawal and abandonment. More disturbingly, all the Taliban and al Qaeda hear is that they have survived the worst of it and they only need to last a few more years until 2014. Three and a half years is nothing in that part of the world. Although Obama attempted to emphasize that significant U.S. forces will remain after the withdrawal of the surge, their very mission to win over the populace will be severely undercut by the message he sent Wednesday night. The entire region is now hedging against the United States rather than siding with it.

Second, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently addressed very bluntly, the United States cannot let the withdrawal of a few thousand U.S. troops be the green light for the Europeans to run for the exits. Unfortunately, despite the attacks on Madrid, London, and Denmark, we know that will likely be the case. At least the planned drawdown of U.S. civilian capacity is something we can control. During my most recent visit to Kandahar, one senior U.S. military commander described USAID as a source of instability rather than stability due to its continued lack of a meaningful presence in the provinces and therefore its inability to fulfill its promises to Afghans.

Declining troop numbers will also affect the ability of U.S. government civilians -- most of whom operate under military protection as they provide aid and guidance on agriculture, governance, and the rule of law -- to go out in the field. From what my former colleagues have told me, the civilian agencies have their own withdrawal schedule, with plans to pull back their already meager presence from forward bases.

Third, every Afghan I've spoken to recently, from ministers to my former interpreters, is increasingly concerned about the prospect of civil war. My Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara friends believe the United States is cutting a deal with Pakistan, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban at their expense. A multitude of notable Tajik leaders -- the late Deputy Interior Minister Daoud Daoud, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, former Minister for Reconstruction Ehsan Zia, former Interior Minister Hanif Atmar, and others -- are increasingly spending time in their home turf reconstituting old alliances and networks. The Northern Alliance is getting the band back together and that includes outreach to its old allies in Iran, Russia, and India -- all of whom are increasingly viewed as more reliable than the United States. The U.S. policy of withdrawal based on timelines rather than conditions -- not to mention excluding minorities from talks with the Taliban -- are only exacerbating the situation.

Finally, Obama's policy is based on the assumption that al Qaeda is defeated and cannot reconstitute itself in the seams of an increasingly unstable Pakistan, a diminished U.S. and coalition presence, ethnic tension, and Afghan army and police forces that are years away from independent operations. This is a very dangerous assumption. Al Qaeda can and will restore itself as the United States invariably loses its hard-fought gains with the Afghan people due to diminished resources and will. A counterterrorism strategy must be nested within a counterinsurgency strategy, as the populace won't risk their necks to work with the coalition unless they feel they will be protected. It takes a network to defeat a network.

Success in Afghanistan and the region is going to be tough and expensive. Most importantly, it will take time. Nearly every commander and civilian who has served there, including me, cites the progress that has been made in the last 10 years, but caveats his or her response with the need for more time. Although the costs are great, they will be far greater if the United States leaves too soon. The people of the region will never trust America again, and the cost of re-engagement if our assumptions are wrong will be nearly insurmountable.

Michael Waltz is a former South Asia advisor to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and a Special Forces officer (reserve component) with multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is now vice president of Metis Solutions, a strategic international consulting firm.


Are we making the same mistakes again in Afghanistan?

In announcing a 33,000-troop reduction in U.S. forces from Afghanistan last night, President Obama said "we've inflicted serious losses on the Taliban" and "we are meeting our goals." Although it is true that certain victories have been achieved over the Taliban, according to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. David Petraeus, these gains are reversible. And I wonder if we are indeed meeting our goals in Afghanistan.

First, what are America's goals in Afghanistan? Is it to defeat al Qaeda? To degrade the Taliban and then negotiate with them? Is it to help build an effective Afghan state capable of stabilizing its own territory? Or as President Obama put it "The goal that we seek is achievable, and can be expressed simply: no safe-haven from which al-Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, or our allies." Perhaps our goal is all of the above? The true nature of the challenges and threats in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is such that these elements are all interconnected. If they are not addressed together, unlike what President Obama stated last night, we will not meet our goals.

It is not sufficient to take "strongholds" from the Taliban in Afghanistan. To truly remove the Taliban threat, institutional support in Pakistan for the Taliban and its affiliates-which harbor global ambitions-need to be stopped. Therefore, a regional strategy needs to be articulated, one that I did not hear that from the President. As the intent behind U.S. strategy remains obscure and unable to match the true character of the challenges encountered in this region, it will invariably invite geostrategic hedging by the regional power players such as Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, and China. This strategic vagueness may be an error of colossal historic scale, setting all of us back again, and costing even more. 

However, I commend the President for directly addressing U.S. domestic concerns caused by a weak economy, high unemployment and continuing fiscal challenges. Bringing back the entire amount of the "surged" troops will alleviate political anxiety in his own party, just in time for presidential elections. However, will this be sufficient? What if Mr. Obama's poll ratings decline further? What if the US economy continues to stay anemic or get worse? Will the President announce another major troop withdrawal from Afghanistan? How about another 70,000 to bring the U.S. presence there to zero? The fact is that the solution to the woes of the U.S. economy is not to be found in troop reductions from Afghanistan. Nor will it secure the homeland from extremists emanating from this region.

The hope is that cooler heads might prevail if indeed the economy does not improve. A hasty withdrawal of troops and a loss of focus on Afghanistan will be a fatal mistake, again. The evidence of such colossal errors is not simply based on opinions expressed by political analysts. Recent history is crystal clear about these costly mistakes. Let us review the evidence:

  • Exit Mistake #1: Defeating the Russian Red Army & the Rise of Taliban: In the 1980s, over a ten-year period, the U.S. supported the Afghan resistance to help expel the Soviet Army. In February 1989, the Red Army withdrew in defeat. However, almost overnight, U.S. assistance to Afghans also stopped. The U.S. left the country in shambles. This led to the rise of a new force, the Taliban, which al-Qaeda then dominated, helping it to perpetuate the 9/11 attacks.The costs of 9/11 are incalculable compared to what a meager spending on basic governance and infrastructure might have achieved in Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal.
  • Exit Mistake #2: Defeating the Taliban & Misadventures in Iraq: After 9/11, it became clear that the U.S. needed to return to Afghanistan, which it did. In 2001, US troops, allied with Afghans ousted the Taliban regime and its fighters in less than a month. Once again, a space was created to rebuild the country. The years  2001, 2002 and 2003 were golden years where another opportunity presented itself to help with basic institutional building, rudimentary economic development, building schools, clinics and courts. However, the U.S. lost its focus again. It started a new war in Iraq and pulled resources, intelligence, and focus out of Afghanistan, leaving a fledgling state exposed. This short-sighted measure led to the resurgence of the Taliban, the growing powers of warlords and an insidious circle of fraud and corruption. Realizing the gravity of the situation in 2008, the U.S. had to send more troops and then again in 2009 orchestrating a troop surge, all of which led us to where we are now, spending over $110 billion a year on U.S. military forces.

The costs of inattention, of a lack of sustained focus and a lack of enduring commitment are indeed very high. The problem is not that we are spending $110 billion a year in Afghanistan but the fact that we did not prevent such costs when we had the chance to do so. Sept 11, the Iraq war and the more recent troop surge in Afghanistan all have roots in the rush for the exits from Afghanistan in 1989 and in losing focus after defeating the Taliban in 2001. The term "nation-building" has become a bugaboo because of the mistaken notion that pouring billions in a military approach will create stability in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Instead, the relatively tiny amounts of money needed to build infrastructure and assure the rule of law in 1989 and then again in 2001 could have saved us trillions we are now spending.

In his speech, President Obama was right to state that U.S. credibility around the world depends more on American values than on projecting power via military force. Mr. Obama now has a chance to articulate a significant shift in the Afghanistan strategy. Keep a smaller number of troops in Afghanistan, but commit the U.S. and international community there for the long haul. A fraction of the savings from a smaller military footprint should be sufficient to focus on building governance and the necessary infrastructure to promote the rule of law. The U.S. can also help spur economic growth and jobs by leveraging Afghanistan's huge mineral resources and engaging allies in supporting national programs in education and health. Let us stop repeating the same mistakes again. Loosing focus once more will only provide incentives to the Taliban, its institutional supporters, the warlords, and all of the regional power players pushing them to seek their own interests at the expense of others.

Let us heed the lessons of history and not panic our way out of Afghanistan. If we do so again, the resulting costs will make $110 billion a year look like small potatoes.

Masood Aziz is a former Afghan diplomat in Washington DC.


In Afghanistan, huge challenges remain

"Of course, huge challenges remain. This is the beginning - but not the end - of our effort to wind down this war. We will have to do the hard work of keeping the gains that we have made, while we drawdown our forces and transition responsibility for security to the Afghan government. And next May, in Chicago, we will host a summit with our NATO allies and partners to shape the next phase of this transition. "

This is a great aspirational goal, and is the end-state of any third-party counterinsurgency campaign; to make the problem simple enough for the host national government (that you have trained in the interim) to handle the remaining security challenge, and pull out the remaining third-party forces. But as numerous field commanders have found, this is often easier said than done. An insurgency exists in most cases precisely because the host nation government has been weak, corrupt, or both.

So what will the President (or his successor) do if, despite herculean efforts on the part of the NATO mission to defeat Taliban forces and train both Afghan security forces and Afghan civil government, the Afghans are simply still not ready to have security transitioned to them? What then? Are our interests in Afghanistan important enough to extend our effort? If so, for how long, at what strength, and at what price? This has always been a tension in the President's policy, or with any policy that imposes an external timeline (one imposed by the host country is a different matter altogether). This policy simultaneously states that we have interests worth shedding American blood for in Afghanistan, while signaling exactly what our price point is for foregoing those interests.

We need to accept that a disengagement from Afghanistan may be ugly, which may tempt us to extend our involvement. We must not kid ourselves that there won't be more rounds of hard choices about Afghanistan. The policy as outlined by the President is a good first step towards a more rational policy that aligns our real but limited interests in Afghanistan with the costs appropriate for those limited interests. But we must prepare ourselves for the cold reality of what our withdrawal from Afghanistan will look like.  When the President says that Afghanistan will not be a "perfect place," he may be understating considerably. But the President is still right.  Fixing Afghanistan is an Afghan responsibility, with the costs not borne by either American taxpayers or American soldiers. We may still decide that a long-term residual training and counterterrorism force in Afghanistan is in our interest-and may fall within the context of a long-term relationship with Afghanistan. But this will be a much lower cost endeavor, both in money and troop presence, than the current operation.

In short, we cannot plan on success. We must make the best plan that gives the best chance of success and work as hard as we can, within our resource constraints, to bring it about. But to plan on success is pollyannaish. Calmer heads should be thinking now about a wide range of contingencies, because it will almost certainly not be as simple as that laid out by the president last night. When it comes to Afghanistan, we still have the wolf by the ears.

Douglas A. Ollivant is the Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. He recently served as a counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images